HARLEM — It started out as a way to raise money for the holiday lights on 125th Street in the middle of a recession. Now a collection of Harlem community groups is banding together to promote businesses in the neighborhood.
The Promotional Alliance of Harlem consists of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, Harlem Business Alliance, Harlem Park to Park and the Aloft Harlem Hotel. With a mantra of "Fun, Fashion and Food," the group, which has about 1,000 businesses under its umbrella, is out to highlight all Harlem has to offer.
"After the economy went down we came together to make the lights happen. That developed relationships and we started looking at how it could be more than 125th Street," said Barbara Askins, president of the 125th Street Business Improvement District.
Harlem ranks as the third most popular tourist destinations in the city, drawing 1.3 million visitors, according to the Harlem Community Development Corporation. The corner of Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 125th street averages 600,000 pedestrians a month, according to the 125th Street Business Improvement District's pedestrian counter, said Askins.
But often, the tourists just drive through Harlem and don't get off the bus and therefore don't spend money at restaurants, clothing stores and entertainment venues.
"We see people drive by but we are not seeing the dollars," said Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, executive director of Harlem Park to Park. "We don't want to be a museum and have people take pictures of the architecture, go to the church services and that's it."
Part of the problem is that Harlem is not connected enough to larger events that draw tourists to the city such as Restaurant Week, said Evans-Hendricks.
In the past few years, Harlem has developed enough attractions, such as the restaurant row on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, to keep tourists busy.
Daniel Fevre, general manager of Aloft Harlem, said the hotel has had more than 7,000 guests in the first five months of this year. Many ask for direction to do everything from buying a toothbrush to hearing good live music.
"We need to find a way to show them how much we have. We need them to stay with us," said Fevre.
The new group will focus its efforts on marketing. Regina Smith, executive director of the Harlem Business Alliance said many small Harlem business owners simply don't have enough resources to focus on marketing and that it goes by the wayside.
"By working collaboratively we can focus attention and draw traffic and promote ... businesses that cannot afford to market their business without our support," said Smith. "There is a deep and abiding interest in seeing our community and businesses thrive."
The efforts will include efforts to link Harlem in to existing citywide marketing initiatives as well as creating new programs to draw people to Harlem. The group has already joined forces with The American Performing Arts Collaborative, which supports artists, offer at-risk youth artistic training and provides live performance events.
"Ultimately, we have a mandate to help make businesses grow so they can provide jobs," said Askins.